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Martin Carthy – Master of Folk

February 14, 2014

I don’t go to to much live music these days, which is a shame. Music used to take up much of my life, both personally and professionally. So you might wonder why I would drive over a hundred miles to see a guy playing to eighty people in a suburb of Birmingham.

The reason was that the artist was a person whose music I have been listening to for over forty years: Martin Carthy. In all that time I had never seen him live.

Even if you’ve never heard of Martin, you may have heard of Scarborough Fair. Simon and Garfunkel used his arrangement on one of their early albums, and thereby immortalised an old English folk song that might otherwise never have been heard outside its country of origin.

Folk music is one of my favourite genres, even though my taste always veered towards the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Sandy Denny, John Fahey, the Chieftains, Fairport Convention, Ry Cooder. In other words, folk tinged with something  else, be it blues, country, Irish or even Latino.

Above them all, though, stands Martin Carthy.

Search on YouTube, and you will find a number of videos of Martin in action, including this profile which appeared on the BBC in 1998. Also have a listen to this interview by Paul Morley with Martin, accompanied by his wife Norma and daughter Eliza, both of whom are also leading lights in the folk world. He is a master of his genre, which is why I had to see him live before age renders him incapable of performing and me incapable of going to see him.

I’ve no idea how many people go to live “folk music” gigs, or how many CDs are sold. But it’s still popular enough to warrant its own section in stores like Virgin, usually sitting next to “world music” and “blues”. In the late sixties and seventies a huge number of artists drew from the English folk tradition and its regional American cousins – Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and countless others.

These days the form that sprung up in the fifties and sixties doesn’t get the same attention as it did, which is why Martin Carthy performs to eighty people as opposed to eight hundred. That might not be great for Martin in terms of income, but for those who love his music, the opportunity to hear him in small and intimate venues enhances the experience of watching a master at work.

A master of what, you might ask. Well, there’s his guitar playing. Melodic, rhythmic, underpinning the songs in a way most folk artists can’t. With him the guitar is another voice, not a pretty, tinkling finger-picked backdrop. Then the voice, maybe not as powerful as it once was – at the age of 72, he’s allowed – but a sinuous tenor. The delivery, the words enunciated with the precision of an actor – if you were to put Tom Waits on one end of a clarity scale, Martin would be on the other. And finally his personality – charming, unassuming, no airs and graces.

The songs are extracts from the oral history of England. A counterpoint to the top-down histories we study in academia. We’re not talking just about maypoles, hearts and flowers. He sings about poverty, revenge, blood feuds, rape, doomed love, adultery. Subjects Thomas Hardy wrote about. Thanks to pioneers like Cecil Sharp, we have a large body of songs going back centuries – both urban and rural – that reflect the hard reality, as well as the joy, of life away from the dining rooms and country houses of England. And it’s these songs that Martin draws on, sometimes updating them with references to today’s hard lives.

My favourite Carthy album is Prince Heathen, which he recorded in 1969 with fiddler and long-time collaborator Dave Swarbrick. At the Birmingham gig he did two of the songs from that album – Polly on the Shore and Seven Yellow Gypsies, as well as another classic, Famous Flower of Serving Men. Wonderful songs. To paraphrase his own words, it can take days to read a novel, hours to watch an opera, a play or a movie, but an English folk song tells a story in minutes.

Unlike many other musical genres, folk music remains accessible. No stadia, ludicrous contract riders, minders, PR people. Just the artist and the audience. Would you be able to have a chat with Prince, Yo Yo Ma, Springsteen or Beyoncé in the middle of a gig, as I did with Martin? And within his field, Martin is on the same level of eminence as the people I’ve just mentioned.

If you think I’m writing this just for my generation, the baby boomers, you’re wrong. Many of those who were at the Birmingham event were in their twenties and thirties. My daughter’s a fan, which is why she sent me the tickets for Christmas. And there are many festivals in the UK where folk artists still play for large, multi-generational audiences.

Even if you’ve never heard a folk song in your life, it’s not too late to start listening to music that will still have a place in the musical canon in a hundred years’ time. Its themes of subversion, love, magic, hatred and hardship are to be found throughout England’s theatrical heritage, from the the plays of Shakespeare to modern masterpieces such as Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. It will never be more than a minority taste, yet it speaks to the soul no less than music that draws audiences a hundred times larger.

Martin Carthy still plays regularly across the UK. If you live in the London area, you can catch him at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards event at the Royal Albert Hall.

I’m only sorry I waited four decades before seeing him live.

From → Music, Social, Theatre, UK

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